Tag Archives: identity

When mission statements, ideologies & human rights collide

logoThere is a legal case in Canada that started in 1995 regarding a person that was refused participation as a volunteer, and that case has always stuck with me. I have never, ever seen it discussed on an online forum for managers of volunteers and never heard it mentioned at a conference related to volunteerism or nonprofit management. I guess I’ve been waiting all these years for someone else to say, “Hey, what about this? How does this affect us? Might this affect us?” But no one has. So, I guess I will, per a discussion that came up on my blog Treat volunteers like employees? Great idea, awful idea.

In Canada, Kimberly Nixon, a transgendered woman, launched a human rights complaint against Vancouver Rape Relief, a nonprofit, for excluding her as a volunteer peer counselor for raped and battered women that seek the services of this nonprofit. Vancouver Rape Relief said it rejected Nixon as a volunteer peer counselor because the organization’s spaces for counseling clients are dedicated women’s-only spaces, and their clients come to the organization specifically because of this commitment to women’s-only spaces (unlike many other nonprofits that offer rape counseling – another women’s group, Battered Women’s Support Services, accepts transgendered women as volunteers, and Nixon volunteered there previously). Vancouver Rape Relief said the reason was also “because she did not share the same life experiences as women born and raised as girls and into womenhood.”

After 12 years of legal pursuits, in 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada denied Nixon’s appeal to have her case heard, leaving the B.C. Court of Appeal’s decision in December 2005 as the last word on the dispute. This article offers a nice summation of that appeal’s court decision:

While it may appear that Rape Relief discriminated against Nixon because she was born with a penis, they have a different rationale. Rape Relief’s collective belief is that far beyond a person’s biological make-up, socialization and experience are what shapes individuals. It’s part of their philosophy that women experience the male-dominated world differently than men. That was the 34-year-old organization’s original argument for why they should be allowed to exclude men when their women-only policy was first challenged in the 1970s, and they feel it’s relevant to whether they should admit transsexual women.

It’s noted in the article, and I think it is VERY important to note here, that “both parties agreed that Nixon was a woman and that gender existed on a continuum — it wasn’t binary, despite the social convention of dividing everyone into categories of male or female” and “both the tribunal and Rape Relief accept that Nixon has a genuine interest in counselling other women, and she has done so both before and after her filing the human rights complaint.”

This article from 2000, before the case was decided by the courts, does a good job of showing the different arguments in the case. But even with a final decision, the case continues to be a source of controversy in Canada and abroad among those concerned with human rights applications for transgendered people. Some still call Vancouver Rape Relief “transphobic”: this article says that because the organization is “allowed to make their own determinations about who is—or who is not—a woman, and exclude them accordingly” that the organization is “allowed to discriminate against trans women. As a feminist and an ally to the trans community, I find this extraordinarily disturbing.” Disputing these accusations, the organization has a section on its web site defending its definition of a women-only space and its commitment to such, and one of the organization’s long-time staff members, Lee Lakeman, notes in this 2012 interview, that “Aboriginal people used the arguments that we built in court to defend their right to be only Aboriginals in their group.”

I do not bring any of this up to try to debate who is and isn’t a woman.

I could have also brought up cases regarding tribal membership – this article does a great job of explaining why cultural identification determination is so difficult, as well as explaining why tribal leadership gets to determine who is and isn’t a member of their tribe, rather than the federal government or the federal courts. Conversations and debates about such can be just as heated as the Nixon case.

I bring this case up to remind nonprofit staff, employees and volunteers alike, that a definition you may have of a particular aspect of humanity – who is or isn’t a woman, who is or isn’t gay, who is or isn’t a member of a particular ethnic group, who is or isn’t a member of a particular tribe, who should or should not call themselves an Oregonian or a Texan or a German or an English person or an African whatever – may not be the same, or as absolute, as someone else’s. Mission statements, ideologies, beliefs about human rights and the law can all collide – and have over and over, in break rooms, in meeting rooms, at community events, and in the courts. Don’t be surprised when it happens at, or regarding, your nonprofit.

What’s my opinion on this case? No way I’m going there… I’ve been controversial enough on my blog (links below). I’m going to let ya’ll debate it in the comments, if you want.

But I did kinda sorta blog about something like this before, back in 2012: Careful what you claim: the passions around identity

Also see:

A warning re: Facebook privacy from Nicholas Thompson

NewYorker.com editor Nicholas Thompson was on “CBS This Morning” today, and his comments about Facebook and privacy are worth reading (or listening to):

One of the things that Facebook does is that they’re constantly pushing the line of privacy. They always have, and they always will. They want to take stuff that you want to have private and they want to make it public. What happened with me is my year in review is, of course, pictures of my children, and all sorts of other things. But all of these are things that I’ve marked PRIVATE. I went to share my year in review, and, of course, Facebook defaulted to make it public, so instead of going to just my friends, it goes to 100,000 people. I had to quickly say, oh wait, no, I don’t want it to happen. that’s just the way Facebook operates. It’s always pushing that line. .. Facebook makes money by knowing as much as it possibly can about you, about your friends, about what you talk about because then it can target ads. SO if, for example, it knows, that I have kids, and there are comments about when their birthdays are, it can then have ads selling me stuff to get them for their birthdays or whatever. Facebook just wants as much information about you as it can possibly have in the most public form it can possibly get… Facebook is a business disguised as a service… Assume that Facebook will always be pushing every single possible way it can legally get away with to take everything you do and to make it as public as possible. With that assumption, set your privacy settings more restrictive than you think you might need to do… Facebook’s view, Mark Zuckerberg’s view, has always been that people don’t care about privacy and that over time we will share more and more and become more comfortable with letting more intimate details out into the world. And he is right. Over time we are more comfortable, over time we are giving up more, over time Facebook is shrinking the boundaries of privacy, and people really don’t complain.

Thompson is not saying, “Don’t use Facebook.” Obviously, he still uses Facebook. I use Facebook (I have both a profile and a page). And his comments can be said about so many online social networks – they are businesses, not services, and they make money by gathering information about you and sharing it with businesses that want to sell you stuff.

If you have never looked at your Facebook profile using a profile that is not yours and isn’t among your Facebook friends, you really should – once a year, in fact. Ask a co-worker that you are not friends with on Facebook if he or she would be willing to log into Facebook and then to look at your Facebook profile and timeline while you look over his or her shoulder, to see what really is public and what isn’t. Look for your contact information (phone number, email), your birthday, photos of yourself and, if you have such, your children. Everything you see is visible to ANYONE with a Facebook account, including those people who are not Facebook friends. Are you comfortable with what you can see? If not, change your Facebook privacy settings.

Why should you care about your privacy? Because:

  • Your employer nor your co-workers should not see what you did on vacation, or what you do outside of work hours; it’s none of their business, and they could use it to fire you. In this economy, most people can’t afford to lose their jobs over something you do outside of work that has nothing to do with your on-the-job performance.
  • It makes it easier to steal your identify. Knowing your birthday and mother’s maiden name can help a thief gather all the information he or she needs to use your identify to buy things.
  • Your life needs boundaries. Your life will feel full of creepy people if you share everything online. I’ve had a few people at my workshops say some things about my personal life that they found out because of what I’d posted online. Back when I shared it on Facebook, I didn’t think it was a big deal, but having it brought up at a workshop… it felt creepy.

YOU DO HAVE CONTROL. Be deliberate in what you post, and keep in mind that ANYTHING you post online, even if you set it to private, could become public, accidentally, maliciously and deliberately, or through a legal loophole.

Note: I transcribed Mr. Thompson’s comments myself. I apologize if I’ve made any mistakes.

Also see:

Careful what you claim: the passions around identity

Racial and ethnic identity is complicated – and more powerful than you might think. Go to Spain and mistakenly call someone from the Basque region Spanish. Go to Wales or Scotland and mistakenly call someone English. Go to Afghanistan and make a statement that assumes everyone in the country is Pashtun. You will get a VERY passionate response that will show you just how powerful racial and ethnic identity can be.

I never really thought racial identify mattered to me, personally, until I realized what Caucasian meant – the term Caucasian race was created by a German philosopher, Christoph Meiners, in the late 1700s – he defined two racial divisions: Caucasians (“white and beautiful”) and Mongolians (“brown and ugly”).

And if that wasn’t enough to turn me off the term, then living in Europe was: no one there calls Europeans Caucasians. Not unless you are from the Caucasus Mountains.

So now, if I’m filling out the form, and instead of white or of European descent, the form says Caucasian, I choose other. ‘Cause I ain’t from the Caucasus Mountains. And no race is more beautiful than another.

I’ve wondered if, someday, choosing other in such situations is going to make someone think I’m trying to claim some ethnic minority status. I would never do that. In fact, if I ever raise the funds to do one of those DNA ethnic heritage tests, and anything other European shows up, I won’t claim it on any form – how could I claim a heritage when I was never raised in such, when it’s something I’ve no real knowledge of? THAT would be disingenuous, IMO.

In 1993, I worked with American Indians living in the San Francisco Bay area and Arizona, helping them to identify and develop projects they believed would help them economically. It was my first exposure to community development. A couple of people became lifelong friends. And one of the MANY things they taught me was this:

Never, ever claim American Indian heritage just because your family has always said a grandmother or great-grandmother or whatever was Cherokee.

If I heard this warning / complaint once, I heard it a dozen times.

(the groups I worked with also loathed the term Native American, hence my use of the term American Indian – always ask which is preferred)

I’ve never forgotten that lesson (and several others). And as a result, I’ve cautioned some friends who have made the I’m part Cherokee claim – don’t share it outside the family unless you can back it up, because eventually, you are going to get called on it.

All this has come to mind as I’ve watched Elizabeth Warren struggle over explaining the Cherokee heritage that her family claims. She believed the family stories were true, and she was proud of those stories. But she didn’t realize how common those claims are, and how, more often than not, they aren’t true – nor how much those false claims insult tribal members in the USA.

Family history is something most of us never question, that we accept whole-heartedly: why wouldn’t we believe the long-told story that a great-great-grandmother was born on a ship coming from Europe to the USA in the 1800s, or that a great-great-grandfather escaped slavery with the help of Harriet Tubman? It never dawns on you to ask for some kind of documentation, to engage in activities to prove whatever the claims are. And it never dawns on you that casually claiming something in your family heritage could eventually turn out not to be true and could cause you a very significant problem, even some controversy.

I hope this becomes a teachable moment: as much fun as family stories are, it’s a good idea to do some digging and get at least a bit of documentation before you share them outside your family. And unless you have some kind of proof that great-grandma was Cherokee, keep that legend to yourself.

And if you want to know if you really do have any family connection to an American Indian tribe, get busy tracing and documenting your lineage: get accurate names and birth places of grandparents and great-grandparents, and on and on, as far back as you can. Use ancestry.com for accurate birth/death records. Names and birth places on reservations will be clues to American Indian ancestry. Census records may also note your ancestors’ ethnicity. You may be able to find a family member that is listed on the census as a member of a tribe – and that means you will be able to get the name of tribe, the enrollment number, and the census number to prove your lineage. You have to get a state certified birth and death certificates of your enrolled ancestor for an official Certificate of Degree of Indian or Alaskan Native Blood from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.